by Charles Campbell
Author Angie Abdou opened her May 5th workshop for over 20 people with these words: “Trust the process”.
Abdou—also keynote speaker for NOWW’s LitFest Gala—described writing as an exercise that may or may not generate results. Athletes train daily and for long hours so they will have the skill and discipline for infrequent events. In order to be a writer, she said you have to take the same approach.
Abdou’s first novel dealt with Olympic athletes, so her advice to treat writing like a sport is based on experience in both pursuits. Writers should write daily, she said, with the intention that while their word count will accumulate over time, much of what is written may never be published.
To that end Abdou recommended writers adopt a practice that includes timed writings that are either free flowing or prompted by a broad concept. Leave the mind open. When the time comes to review what you have written, take what works and don’t worry about what doesn’t.
“Write hard, write raw, write what hurts.” Ernest Hemingway
Abdou discussed how writing needs to engage the reader. It is not enough to write pretty words; the reader should feel emotion and urgency and believe that the stakes in the story are meaningful. She explained how we write about objects can convey emotion, rather than having the author describe how characters feel. In order to better understand this concept, Abdou gave workshop participants three writing exercises. First, we described an object special to us and second, we wrote about someone threatening that object. Then we put together the two for the beginning of a story. I wound up with a few hundred words that demonstrated how an object I own embodies my emotion and how a threat to it, threatens me.
Abdou discussed how important it is for the first few pages of a work to capture a reader’s interest. She provided openings to two very different books and asked us to explore what made them work (or not) and how they might be improved. No surprise that openings can come in many forms but need to provide characters that readers will care about. They also need to raise questions that create suspense without generating confusion for the reader which may take them out of the story. From the participants’ feedback, it also became clear that what hooks one reader might not hook another.
With a collection of short stories, four novels, and her first nonfiction book Home Ice to be released this fall, Abdou has a solid track record in publishing. She drew on her experience to let us know what we should expect when we have a novel that we consider ready to bring to the marketplace. The short answer is “more work”.
Editors will ask hard questions, Abdou said, and writers need to be ready to listen and consider what is being asked. An editor may not request a rewrite, but a few well aimed questions may give the writer pause to consider if the material deserves one. Abdou’s message: the writer-editor relationship has been around for a long time. Trust the process. While she does not see an agent as a requirement for publishing in Canada, the right agent can help to open doors in other countries and address the business side of publishing.
I went to the workshop ready to hear how to hook a reader. I learned this—and more. If we want to publish, we need to review our writing critically and listen to what others have to say. But first we need to write.
Charles Campbell is an accountant by day and writer by evening and weekend. Although he has had successfully submitted his tax returns for decades, he is far more proud of having his plays selected for the 2015, 2016 and 2018 10x10 Showcases. Charles joined NOWW to get away from financial statements and to dedicate more time to develop his writing, but much like Michael Corleone, he's been pulled back in and is serving as Treasurer.